Read Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews Online
Authors: John Grant
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Reference, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #History & Criticism, #Criticism & Theory
Hosts: A Repairman Jack Novel
by F. Paul Wilson
Gauntlet, 363 pages, hardback, limited edition, 2001
Sandy Palmer, cub reporter for a scuzzy New York tabloid weekly,
, is on the subway when a maniac gunman opens up with a pair of automatics. Before the lunatic can kill too many, the guy who's been sitting opposite Sandy, and whom Sandy has hardly noticed, pulls out a weapon of his own and efficiently shoots the maniac dead. At the next station the vigilante hero leaps out and loses himself in the crowd. Sandy determines to (a) track down the man he dubs The Savior (he succeeds), (b) thereby become a star reporter for
(he succeeds), and (c) get into the pants of Beth, the pretty student he was hitting on when the gunman opened fire (it's no spoiler to say that he vigorously and repeatedly succeeds, oh my).
The reason The Savior is desperate for anonymity is that he is in fact the enigmatic Repairman Jack, living somewhere beyond the fringes of the law and earning his living by "repairing" bad situations – rather like a private detective but with more reliance on firepower to solve problems. Few know his identity except his pal Abe who, under cover of running a sports shop, is in fact a seller of sophisticated weaponry to Repairman Jack and, presumably, the criminal fraternity. (A nice little touch, for sf readers, is that Abe's overt establishment is called the Isher Sports Shop.)
And Jack is about to get a new client. The mystery woman on the telephone proves when they finally meet to be, by astonishing coincidence, his long-estranged sister Kate. Divorced, Kate has discovered why her marriage didn't work so well, and is now in a long-term lesbian relationship with Jeanette. But of late Jeanette has been behaving very strangely, and Kate traces this change of personality to when Jeanette was cured of a – diagnosed – inoperable brain tumour by the radical new technique developed by a surgeon called Fielding. More and more frequently, Jeanette is slipping away for sessions with what seems rather like a coven, headed by the enigmatic Holdstock.
Jack discovers a side-effect of Fielding's technique is that the patients develop such a strong sense of telepathy between each other they are creating a group mind that is somewhat more than the sum of its parts. This group mind is desperate to add to its size by infecting further individuals with contaminated blood – a mere pinprick can be enough. Kate and Jack are accordingly infected in this way, and much of the tension in this highly readable thriller is generated by the fact that both know that, unless they can do something about it, within a few days they will lose their identities to the group mind.
This reviewer has had difficulty with the various F. Paul Wilson novels he's read in the past because of Wilson's general tendency to default to the apocalyptic: if the threatened end of the universe cannot be brought into play, then at the very least the human species must be in danger of extinction. And so it is here. Jack and Kate know – and if they didn't they'd get a clue from their own apocalyptic dreams – that, if they don't succeed in stopping the rot pretty swiftly, the human species as we know it is doomed. In the case of
, however, the melodramatic possible consequences of the success or otherwise of our heroes do not seem so intrusive: they seem a logical follow-on from the less ostentatious actions of the characters, and are kept at a reasonable distance from the main thrust.
Refreshingly, there is humour here, too, mainly brought about by a subplot involving a pair of bumbling hoodlums who have sworn to assassinate Jack in revenge for his having helped them hoist themselves with their own petard – almost literally – in a previous adventure.
This is by no means a major novel – in no sense could it be thought of as having the ambition to extend its genre in any way, or even to make the reader think – yet it certainly is a hugely enjoyable sf/fantasy/horror thriller, and very hard to put down. My only real criticism is that it doesn't allow the group mind properly to put forward its own case. An argument could be, but isn't, made that the loss of our individualities into, eventually, a single species-mind might have benefits as well as drawbacks – in other words, if the group mind of the tale is genuinely philanthropic (albeit misguided), which it clearly believes itself to be despite its readiness to kill in order to advance its cause, then it should be permitted to state its rationale, even if we reject (as inevitably we would) its reasoning. Instead, it is assumed that any form of group mind is
a complete evil, an anathema to all that is human, and that the reader will regard it with complete revulsion and accept the slaughter of the human members of the group mind as of no consequence – or, rather, something to applaud. As, to be true, probably most readers will. Yet there is something slightly unsatisfying about a novel that in effect says to us: the baddies are bad because they're bad. A more ambitious work might have offered us a fair presentation of the motivations of the foe.
The World and Other Places
by Jeanette Winterson
Jonathan Cape, 234 pages, hardback, 1998
This is a cute little book. Its pages are (I know, because I've measured them with the battered plastic 12-inch – or should that be 30cm? – ruler that my daughter used at school, which was a very good school, a dearie-aye-and-dandy school where the rich folk with their big cars and their peacock-feather strutting chests sent the children of quality) seven and one-quarter inches tall and five and one-quarter inches by the horizontal dimension – although both of my measures would be different if issued as by order of God Herself in the European system.
That is one of this book's mysteries. Its cuteness.
It is also cute because there are wide spaces between the lines of text, so there are not so many words on each page that the senses are confused. There are also lots of blank pages. For both reasons, there are not many words in the book as a whole. Dedicated Winterson devotees will perhaps be grateful: less to memorize.
Another mystery is that it has very pretty endpapers but that no artist is acknowledged for these.
The book would have had even fewer words had it been copy-edited. No verb is unadverbed, no noun unadjectived.
There are seventeen stories in this book, as well as a half-finished Afterword and an Acknowledgements section that mentions no names and gives no details of the stories' original publication. And why should we want such details? After all:
... when we read something for the first time, for us, that is the moment at which it is written. When we read something again, our own past and present collide.
That is a good point about our own past and present colliding. I do not understand what it means, but it is obviously a good point: it has
If I could understand what "poetic truth" is I could hear the bang as my past and present collided.
Most of the stories in this cutely shaped book (did I mention the cuteness?) are not really stories at all. They are more like leaves from a journal, albeit a journal that may on occasion be a fictional one. "The Poetics of Sex", for example, is a collection of thoughts, arbitrarily arranged, that Ms Winterson has (or has had?) about her lover, as if these needed to be explained (justified?) to a heterosexual, such is their uniqueness. Yea, the bright armour of lesbianism gleams! (I'm not sure what that means, either, but the stream of my consciousness, like the eyes of a person flu-inflicted on television and in possibly Haiti but maybe somewhere else, plashes whither it will.) And unique such thoughts are, for straight old me has never had any like them:
She is all the things a lover should be and quite a few a lover should not. Pin her down? She's not a butterfly. I'm not a wrestler. She's not a target. I'm not a gun. Tell you what she is? She's not Lot no. 27 and I'm not one to brag.
When I have listened to the bang of my past and present colliding I will move on to wrestling with butterflies.
Others of these stories, these "stories", these pretend-stories, these pseudo-stories, these essays of the vital, pumping organs, possess, obfuscated among their roiling and rollicking poetry, their exquisite ecstasy of word-weaving, woven into their tapestry of iridescent (coruscating?) prose, something approaching a plot. "The 24-Hour Dog", to choose one at random, is about someone who gets a puppy and, discovering that it needs to be looked after, takes it back. I had never thought of this before, and am unlikely to again.
Indeed, a recurring theme, a trope, of these pieces is of failure, of the inability, for reasons good or ill, to finish something started, or even properly to start it at all.
I am wondering if I am going to be able to finish this book.
There are frequent line-spaces – often two in every page – to break up the prose. At first I wonder if this is roisteringly, ruddily done in an attempt not to overchallenge the reader's attention span. But then I realize Ms Winterson is using the device to emphasize the good bits.
Rather like Stella Gibbons used asterisks.
There is the whiff of fantasy to all the pieces gathered here, but most of them – where my limited understanding can encompass their meaning at all – are to do with the mundane. (The prime example is the title story, which is about the making of fantasy and then its ultimate reduction to, almost, the mundane.) They pour a fantastic sheen onto the everyday, as when someone "shakes his head like a collecting box for a good cause". (Did he, in that case, shake it right off? A more prosaic writer would drably inform us on this point. But to do so
cast an unwanted pebble
into the tranquil pond of
prose poetry. Making it ripple like a raspberry. I scream. Quietly, so as not to offend the neighbours. If I still have any.)
There are, however, some straightforward fantasies (phantasies?). "Turn of the World" presents us with four fantasticated settings yearning to have something
in them; they are prettily described but not especially
, so that the overall effect is of four Ratners (Ranters?) rings sans their artificial gems.
"The Three Friends" is a brief fable and, although its meaning is obscure, is affecting: Ms Winterson has successfully tapped into the true stuff of fairytale.
"Disappearance I" is more like sf than fantasy, being placed in a world – most probably a future world – where it is at least illicit and possibly illegal to sleep, but where some are paid to sleep so that the non-sleepers can witness their dreams. This is a world we have visited before, and again there is little new said.
And then there is "Disappearance II", a skein of silver lining (linen? linoleum?) amid the clouds of self-indulgence. This is a taut little horror story where, for once, the flurry of misplaced words works to advantage. It is that rare thing, a successful fantasy of
: we can accept the banal explanation of the tale (that the owner of some vastly vast stately pile has made love and death to an out-of-season visitor, then stowed the corpse in some remote antechamber where it will never be found, not even by himself), but the narrator doesn't, and we don't. The whole can be read – and preferably read several times – as an allegory of the losing of brief love, as a moving portrait of a mind going awry, or as a fantastication, and is rewarding in each respect.
One fine story out of seventeen pieces, most of which resemble the excesses of (hey ho) feasibly talented but as yet hardly promising students at creative-writing evening classes. The strike rate is not bludgeoningly high. For the most part (
She drifted away from me, her dress clinging to her like a drowned man.
), reader, I am that drowned man.
—Foundation and Infinity Plus
Going, Going, Gone
by Jack Womack
HarperCollins Voyager, 218 pages, paperback, 2000
This is one of those great little novels that's far, far too likely to go unnoticed: a cheaply produced, seemingly uncopyedited, possibly unproofread and certainly rather expensive paperback original, it has been shoved hesitantly onto the market in the traditional book-trade death zone of early December, when booksellers are too tied up in the festive frenzy of discovering how vastly they've over-ordered all the October books that no one wants to buy for Christmas to be remotely interested in stocking any further titles. The bright side of this is that publishing a new book at such a time is almost inevitably an express one-way ticket to the remainder bookshop, so that by the time you read this you may be able to pick up
Going, Going, Gone
for a fraction of the price indicated above.
And pick it up you should, because this novel is a delight. A glorious mixture of almost Ron Goulartish humour with the sensibilities and linguistic style of cyberpunk (albeit without the cyber), it's not just a great entertainment but also an alternate-reality story of sufficient conceptual complexity that its ramifications continue to turn over in the mind for some while after the last page has been read.
In an alternate USA where black people are officially considered related to the great apes rather than
, and have therefore been exterminated or forcibly deported, Walter Bullitt is a government-sponsored terrorist whose task is to infiltrate perceivedly radical groups and disrupt or destroy them by selling them the latest psychotopic drugs – which drugs he habitually samples himself for kicks. When first he starts being haunted, he assumes the ghosts are bye-products of the hallucinogens. By the time he realizes this is not so, two strange and strangely talking people have entered his life: one a huge and cheerfully homicidal cyborg and the other a petite and oddly fascinating woman, Eulie, with whom he promptly falls in love. They prove to be from an alternate reality; the ghosts are symptoms that the alternate reality and Walter's own reality are in danger of imminent collision. After much else, the two realities do indeed collide; the result of their fusion is seemingly our own reality, and in it Walter, now united with Eulie, is seemingly Jack Womack himself.
There are plenty of jokes and injokes – about a decaying New York hotel Walter remarks that "you could tell it wouldn't be long before management finally wrapped its mouth around the gas pipe, and let in sci-fi conventions" – and any amount of sparkily witty stylishness in the writing, so the occasional jolts and jars caused by the lack of copyediting seem hardly to matter. (For example, it
be the case that the hotel just described is near Schubert, rather than Shubert, Alley in Walter's reality, but one suspects this is simply an error.) One mistake does grate: once in Eulie's reality Walter can make no sense of the language spoken there, yet can read the ingredients list on a packet of instant coffee without any difficulty. Slight though this discrepancy might seem, it has the effect of puncturing the very effective portrayal Womack has been up to that point creating of an alternate New Jersey. It should have been picked up by his editor.
But that's a small grump in light of the many delights that
Going, Going, Gone
has to offer. The one regret a newcomer to this author is likely to have is that there are only six other Womack novels to read while waiting for his next one.